The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to two people, from two countries with shared challenges. But the award raises questions: Does India have the will to abolish child labour? And can Malala Yousafzai influence Pakistani women and girl’s rights from abroad?
The two candidates who were awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize are of different ages and experience. What they have in common, however, is the importance they attach to children’s, young people’s and girls’ rights, and the hope that this will contribute to a more peaceful world in the longer term. At the same time, the awarding of the prize raises two questions: whether there is the political will in India totally to abolish child labour; and what influence an activist based outside her own country can have on improving the situation of girls and women in Pakistan.
There is no doubt that child labour is a major international problem. There are approximately 168 million child workers in the world today. A large proportion of these child workers live in India, where they provide cheap labour, benefitting the income of the Indian state and private sector companies that prioritize economic growth.
The Indian prizewinner Kailash Satyarthi has made a formidable effort since the early 1990s to combat the use of child labour. Not the least of his achievements has been the founding of the organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which reports that it has rescued 80,000 children from child labour in India. The organization often does this by turning up at businesses that employ child workers, who are then offered education and other alternatives.
Satyarthi has not only worked locally, he has also been active in the development of UN treaties designed to prevent child labour internationally. This type of dual approach has been shown previously to be very fruitful; the Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, is a good example.
Corruption and political will
At the same time, India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Accordingly it is a country that should have the resources not merely to ban child labour and to sign treaties, both of which it has done, but also actively to fight against it in practice.
But this requires the political will to implement the necessary measures to combat child labour, to stand up to powerful business interests, and to uncover corruption. Achieving this requires the monitoring of political processes and pressure from civil society. There is also the question of economic distribution in India, and who should be allowed to share in the development that has taken place. Internal pressure from individuals and organizations, combined with great international awareness, will make child labour more difficult for the Indian authorities to ignore and more difficult for businesses to use.
Girls are given lower priority
The other, more famous, prizewinner, Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, has been a champion of girls’ rights to education. In 2012 the Pakistani Taliban attempted to assassinate her on her way home from school in the Swat Valley. She survived the attack and subsequently has gained a great deal of attention for her work. She has spoken at the UN and has received international prizes.
In many countries and cultures, girls are given lower priority. In general it is boys who are given the opportunity of education. Culture, traditions and religious views have also influenced these choices, including the choices that girls make for themselves. Islam, which is the dominant religion in Pakistan, stresses that both girls and boys have a right to be educated, but girls’ rights to education are often ignored by some sections of the population and by extremist religious groups. One reason is that many people do not want to change traditional attitudes, especially if this will weaken male supremacy. It may also be that they are afraid that changes will have a negative effect on their own culture and religion.
People who want change quickly become labelled as “foreign agents” – as people who are working against national interests. In countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan these attitudes extend far beyond groups such as the Taliban and Al Quaeda. Scepticism about change is rooted far more deeply in society, including among women, which makes it even more difficult to counter. No doubt many people use religious arguments and refer to the Koran’s view of women in debates in order to avoid being labelled as “pro-Western”.
But there are also many people like Malala in these societies, young women who work for equal rights close to home. Mobile phones, Internet access, and increased debate about women’s rights on radio and television have brought dramatic changes in access to knowledge and opportunities for women to communicate with each other in these strictly segregated societies. This is a change that we have only seen the start of, but we must not underestimate the opposition it may provoke.
What support is there for Malala in Pakistan?
Malala needs to proceed cautiously from her exile in the United Kingdom in order to avoid damaging the position of Pakistani girls and women who encounter opposition locally. She could easily become depicted as a “Western agent”, whose goal is to undermine national traditions and religion, with reference to the use of military force in Afghanistan and drones in Pakistan.
How she expresses herself, and what support she can obtain in Pakistan for girls’ fundamental right to education, including support from religious leaders and other prominent figures in Pakistani society, will be decisive in determining whether change can come about locally. If change does come about, this may prevent more girls from being exposed to assassination or having to seek sanctuary abroad.
Shared problems, shared solutions
The two prizewinners come from India and Pakistan respectively. The two countries – one Hindu and one Muslim – have been involved in conflicts with each other ever since the partition of India in 1947. What they have in common, and what is a major problem in both countries, is a struggle to achieve fundamental rights for women and girls. In India, much attention has been focused during the past year on attacks on, and murders of, young women. In Pakistan it is recognised that forced marriages – and the honour killings of young women who resist them – are a major social problem. At the same time, these problems are not equally prevalent in all parts of these countries or in all parts of society. There are powerful forces in both countries that are working for women’s and girls’ rights.
The belligerent rhetoric that has characterized relations between these two countries has made it difficult for these voices to be heard and to exert an influence. Discussing national problems is perceived negatively. Such discussions are seen as weakening the national pride that is needed to mobilize the population against the “external enemy”. This creates problems for people wishing to engage in cross-border cooperation.
Recognition that the two prizewinners have been awarded their prizes due to their work to combat problems shared by both countries could be the start of a new debate, building bridges between civil society in India and in Pakistan. Now activists in both countries have the opportunity to unite against the barriers established by military leaders and politicians who have profited from continuing the conflict.
If the Indian and Pakistani authorities give reciprocal support to their two prizewinners, this will be a good start. Here the two prizewinners will play an important role – by emphasizing that the shared problems need shared solutions.
This text is published in Norwegian today at Ytring.no: Fred for neste generasjon
Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext